Gascon And Mirkarimi Square Off Yet Again, This Time Over Plans To Build New SF Jail

Top law enforcement officials argued Thursday over whether San Francisco should build a new jail to replace inadequate facilities at the seismically unsafe Hall of Justice.

District Attorney George Gascon, Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, Public Defender Jeff Adachi and others discussed the proposal for a new jail at a meeting of San Francisco’s Community Corrections Partnership executive committee.

The committee was established as part of AB 109, state legislation in 2011 that moved supervision of many low-level offenders from the state level to local jurisdictions and tasked each county with creating a panel to make recommendations to its board of supervisors on the best ways to implement the realignment.

The committee on Thursday mulled whether to draft a letter recommending that the city request a state grant for a new $290 million jail that would be built several years from now adjacent to the current Hall of Justice building at 850 Bryant St. in the city’s South of Market neighborhood.

Mirkarimi and others were in favor of building the new jail, while Gascon was one of two members of the panel who opposed the plan and said they thought there were other options for the roughly 600 inmates in two county jails on the top two floors of the Hall of Justice.

Charles Higueras, who is overseeing the Hall of Justice replacement project for the city’s Department of Public Works, told the committee that the building has a seismic hazard rating of 3, meaning that a major earthquake could cause damage posing serious hazards to its occupants.

More than 3,000 people live and work in the building, which also houses San Francisco’s district attorney’s, medical examiner’s and adult probation offices as well as courtrooms and police headquarters, Higueras said.

The police brass are moving to a new building in the city’s Mission Bay neighborhood next year funded by a bond passed by voters, while a second bond measure will go on the ballot in June 2014 to fund the relocation of the medical examiner’s office and other police units, Higueras said.

The proposed new jail would be paid out of the city’s general fund and not subject to a vote, he said.

Kyle Patterson, project manager with the city controller’s office, said the current jails at the Hall of Justice have “a very antiquated design” that allows only “intermittent visual supervision of inmates” and little space for rehabilitative programs to be held there.

Mirkarimi agreed, calling the conditions at the jails “deplorable.”

Some opponents of plans for the new jail have proposed moving the Hall of Justice inmates to San Francisco’s jails located south of the city in San Bruno, but Mirkarimi called that a “false premise” that would lead to high travel costs and delays for court proceedings involving the inmates.

Gascon said he thought applying for state money for a new jail was “premature” and said the city should instead focus on programs that help reduce the number of inmates in the jails.

He said the jails at the Hall of Justice already have a large number of vacant beds and said he thinks he can reduce the population of inmates in the pre-trial stage of their cases by 10 percent in the next two years.

Instead of spending money on a large new jail, Gascon said, “We should be thinking of doing things differently” and be “thoughtful with taxpayers’ money.”

Another member of the panel, Beverly Upton of the Domestic Violence Consortium, said, “I don’t think San Francisco wants to be in the jail building business … if this went to the voters, I think we’d know that overwhelmingly.”

Adachi, San Francisco’s public defender, said he understood the concerns of opponents but also said he was worried that if more inmates ended up being sent to the jail in San Bruno, their defense attorneys and families would have a harder time visiting them.

Don Wilson, president of the San Francisco Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, said the need for a new jail was “basically a safety issue,” both because of the seismic risks at the Hall of Justice and the risks posed by the design of the current jails there.

The panel eventually voted 8-2 in favor of drafting the letter, with Gascon and Upton providing the two opposing votes. The final draft of the letter will be approved at a future meeting of the committee, which will hold its next meeting on Oct. 23.

Dan McMenamin, Bay City News

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